The debate over what is and what isn’t American is full of nuance. While certain politicians and nativists tout that the greatness of this country is viewed through a tiny, narrow lens where everyone speaks English first, there is another, more complicated conversation that marginalized people are engaged with daily.
Is the United States of America defined by freedom, baseball, apple pie and Fourth of July fireworks? Or is this country all about something darker – family separations, police brutality towards people of color and the further marginalization of underrepresented communities?
It’s a complicated question, one that Richard Montoya asks in the brilliant revival of “Culture Clash (Still) in America,” as he plays an immigration lawyer who is pelted with images of undocumented children ripped from their grieving mothers. As he delivers grim truths that these children may never see their families again, he asks:
“Is a country that cages children as a punitive measure, is that country still America?”
There is an audible gasp as those words roll off his tongue, an inquiry that is the through line of the entire piece. This little morsel of brilliance is one of the many moments that Culture Clash, consisting of Montoya, Herbert Siguenza and Ric Salinas, wield their sharpened, satirized daggers with hard-hitting humor and pointed pathos.
Calling this production a sketch show sells it short, a piece directed with grace and heart by Lisa Peterson. While the form is certainly one where we are introduced to various characters in different situations, which were actually a series of interviews the group conducted in the past, the characters are fantastic snapshots of America as a whole.
As is the case with many a Culture Clash show, they play characters who are rich with personality and plenty of heart to boot. There is the adorable Francis and her gnarly husband Todd, who are charming, unassuming, and certainly reflect a citizenry who doesn’t know what to make of the current political climate. They are demolition workers who see a profitable business due to the ever-present hurricanes of Florida that decimate their community. I mean, they feel bad, sure. But hey, capitalism, baby!
Other characters prove just as memorable. Salinas’ portrayal as a Nuyorican man and his approach to how different Latin folks dance salsa is not only hilarious, but deadly accurate. Mexicans dancing as if they are flapping their wings hit pretty personally.
There are other delightful and intriguing folks that span various generations, including an older white Fresno hippie portrayed by Montoya, who bemoans all the new rules that come with 21st century wokeness, which include using proper pronouns and listening to the correct NPR shows. Montoya’s constant interjections of “It huuuuuurts” is beyond hilarious, over the top yet skilled portrayals which are the essence of each Clash member.
Laughs are aplenty, but where their special brand of satire soars is their approach to truth that lines every scene. Consider the transgendered Cuban woman living in San Francisco as she explains in detail her journey to become a woman. Her dignity as she explores the consternation of her beloved is heartbreaking, my wife revealing later how she fought back tears in this moment considering one of the programs she oversees as a mental health director is an LGBTQIA youth center. Siguenza’s performance is loaded with truth, a conversation similar to ones my wife has had many times with souls who want nothing more than to love and be loved unconditionally.
When looking at all these character sketches, they are layered with all that makes America such a wickedly magical yet frustrating place. If you look at the American flag, there are three colors, but if you observe Culture Clash’s version of the flag designed by Christopher Acebo, it’s much more accurate. This country belongs to no one and belongs to everyone at the same time – every subgroup, every immigrant, every red hat-wearing MAGA supporter makes up what we know as America.
In the dynamic that Culture Clash creates, a very specific tribute is made towards the end of the show. No spoilers here, but to hear the words “dead but refuse to die” is the essence of puro Chicanismo. The play not only looks at today’s complicated and contentious divisions, but celebrates those who have come before us and enriched our souls. There are references to people such as Montoya’s father José Montoya, one of the greatest poets this country has ever produced. Watching the final scene, someone like José Antonio Burciaga, the late author and former member of Clash, may even come to mind. His landmark book “Drink Cultura” was probably found in every college Mechista’s backpack whether they were taking Chicano studies or not. From Chavez, Valdez, Cisneros and Huerta, the homage to past and present pioneers is appropriate and necessary.
Culture Clash’s voice is getting ready to enter its 36th year, and based on their energy level in those 90 harrowing minutes, there are no signs of slowing down. The marginalized groups that the troupe champions, much like Culture Clash themselves, are STILL in America. That might not make everyone happy, but we ain’t worrying about those folks, are we?
Culture Clash, much to our benefit, refuses to die.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “Culture Clash (Still) in America”
Written and performed by Culture Clash
Directed by Lisa Peterson
The Word: Sharp satire full of heart and truth allows this theatrical examination of America to soar mightily.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Through April 5th
Berkeley Rep Peet’s Theatre
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets range from $30 – $97
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org